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Solving the Problems with Voting Machines in the United States

The next speaker at EDEM 2009 is Mohammed Awad, who shifts our attention to e-voting the United States, where there have been some substantial problems with e-voting systems across a number of recent elections, of course, which were highlighted first in 2000 with the voting fiasco of the disputed elections in Florida. As a result, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed to push for a shift towards electronic voting machines to implement Direct Recording Electronics (DREs) by 2004; the speed with which this happened led to another problem in the 2004 elections, where there were substantial questions raised about the quality of the source code for the voting machines and several technical faults and miscounts were recorded. There were fewer problems in the 2008 elections, but largely also because the winning margins were greater, so small miscounts did not matter as much.

Much of this is about electronic rather than Internet voting, of course - in the US, voters generally use voting machines at the polling stations, rather than voting online. There are some experiments in Internet voting (for soldiers in the field, and for some expat communities), but these were not used to any significant extent.

In the 2008 Senate rate in Minnesota, the election was initially decided in favour of Norm Coleman, by 215 votes (or 0.0075%), which triggered an automatic recount - but after a three-week recount, Coleman was again declared the winner (by 188 votes). 6,500 of the ballots submitted were challenged, and on 5 January, Franken was declared ahead in the next recount by 255 votes; the next day, Coleman filed for an election contest, and later also appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court - which finally rejected his appeal on 30 June, so that Franken became a US Senator.

The upshot of this drawn-out process is a perception that voters are given too much freedom in filling in their ballots, leading to ambiguous or spoilt votes. Electronic voting machines are seen to be faster, but do not inherently allow for recounts; it is therefore necessary to add paper audit trails to ensure accountability, but even then, problems may emerge (printers running out of paper, etc.). At any rate, some 63% of voters fail to notice mismatches between what they wish to vote for, and what appears in the paper trail generated...

Mohammed now introduces a new prototype system which aims to address some of these problems. The system contains a mechanical part with spools and a marker, as well as an elecronic part with a screen for interaction and buttons to make the selections. The project is currently evaluating technological solutions, and aims to do some heavy load testing in order to avoid crashes on election day. There is also a need to enable a straight ticket option (where at the click of one button multiple votes are automatically cast for all candidates on a specific party's ticket).

So, overall, paper ballots have their own flaws as well, and current e-voting methods are not very popular in the U.S.; paper trails alone do not solve much, unless systems are built in to avoid ambiguous or spoilt votes...

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